Swarthy, thickset and boasting tattoos upon his tattoos, themselves layered around the scars, the man next to me turned to his son, a little bruiser sporting jeans and baseball cap, and asked the question, “What do you do when someone hits you son? What do you do when they hit you and just don’t stop?“
Across the country this week, small children, my own nephew and niece included, are starting out at new schools: an adventure in education, making friends (some of whom stick around for life) and an ability to navigate the plethora of social challenges it entails. Not the least of which are dealing with falling in love and falling in hate.
The four year old tyke turned to his dad, eyes all earnest, glimpsing across at the promised cake stand in the cafe and said “Step back Dad?“
“That’s right son, step back. Whatever you do, you don’t hit them back. Then you tell the teacher, because the teacher will love you as much as we do and when you’re at school, the teacher is in charge. When you’re at home, it’s mummy and daddy who are in charge. Got it?“
I muzzled my surprise: my judgement. What had i expected? A masterclass in mixed martial arts riposte? An edict to hit first and hit hardest? Or was that just my stereotypes talking? The heroes on tv are always the ones that hit fast and smart. You can be the suave thug like Bond or the logical victor like Spock, but the hero is rarely the one who just steps back. Even Spock has his Vulcan Death Grip to fall back on.
At the other end of my day, Andrew started explaining about how they’re looking at using community social spaces to tackle hate crime: one challenge being that just because two groups have suffered attacks, they may not want to come together to talk about it as they may themselves be divided by attitude or belief. It turns out that my enemies enemy may not necessarily be my friend.
It’s a long path we tread: at four years old, the rules are simple. Teacher is in charge, step back. When we grow up, conflict tends to become triangulated, complex, weblike, intractable. We celebrate the fighters, but that very celebration deepens the conflict. Positions become stereotyped and stylised, with the only constants being retribution and spite and all communication being tinged with historic context and veiled threat.
But conflict is rarely resolved through violence alone: although sometimes it’s violence that brings people to the table to talk. The resolution of hate crime does not lie in vigilante groups or even law enforcement: it lies in community attitudes and collective values of what is right and wrong.
When organisational cultures fail, it’s because we create spaces for toxic behaviours to fester unchallenged. We create rifts in trust and attitude that mean it’s ok to lash out. We may not actively encourage it, but we leave open the spaces for behaviours to fail. Resolution comes in closing those gaps, in co-creating a shared narrative where the permission to dominate and control is removed. We cannot stop hate, but we can create spaces where it isn’t tolerated.
For organisations, the challenge is usually less drastic: but the challenges of cultural reform are no less intractable than those of racism or bullying. Indeed, because the behaviours are less dramatic, they can be harder to shift.
Resolution requires change: and not always on our terms. Communities are coherent not because they are full of love, but because the cost of being outside them is higher than the cost of membership. Shared valued: shared rewards. Specialism of effort. It’s easier to be in that out.
Hate crime is wrong and is dreadful. But the people who are engaged in it are only one manifestation of a group of people in society with less extreme views but who tolerate or permit those behaviours to take place. It’s these people we need to engage with. Similarly within organisations, there will always be people to exhibit extreme behaviours, bullies, racists, homophobes, but they’re so easy to spot that it’s almost too easy to root it out. It’s the pervasive and less extreme behaviours that can persist, especially where the culture permits them to continue.
Resolution can be a long road: i never thought i would see peace in Northern Ireland in my lifetime, and yet here we are, decades down the line, living largely in peace. Did we fight out way out of it? Did we legislate our way? No, resolution came through bravery on all sides, the bravery to step back and forge new conversations. The pragmatic establishments on both sides recognised that conversations had to happen.
The success or otherwise of the programme Andrew talked about will lie in it’s ability to engage multiple stakeholders in a common space, to discover their shared values and decide what they, collectively, won’t stand for. If it’s simply a space to celebrate the fighters or celebrate the survivors, it will fulfil one need (the need for support and unity), but will fail to be part of the resolution. Surrounding ourselves with common ground is the way to resolution. Because that’s how we close off the spaces for trust to fail, for toxic behaviours to emerge.
And confronting our stereotypes: tattoos don’t mean thugs. A good parent is one who parents well, not the one who buys the best clothes or sends their child to the best school.